Cruising on Rivers



British Waterways issues two kinds of ‘permits’ to allow vessels to use its waterways. A canal & river licence enables a vessel to be used on any BW waterway, whereas a river-only ‘pleasure boat certificate’ is valid only on specified river waterways, and costs 60% of the cost of a full ‘licence’. Note that BW colloquially refers to both kinds of permits as ‘licences’.

If your boat is based on a river and will only ever be used on rivers there is no point in paying extra for a full licence. However, if you need to make a passage along a BW canal as part of your cruising pattern, it may be worthwhile purchasing either a short term (1 day, 1 week, 1 month) or long term (3, 6 or 12 months) licence to ‘top up’ your river registration. If you have a current 3, 6 or 12-month pleasure boat certificate you are entitled to a 50% discount on a short term canal licence

If you venture out to sea and intend to visit Scottish waterways you should consider obtaining a 12-month canal and river licence which will also be valid on BW’s Scottish canals.

If you will be visiting Environment Agency rivers you may wish to consider buying a Gold Licence covering all BW and EA waterways, but this must commence on 1 January and it might prove uneconomical if you only intend to cruise later in the year.

A common criticism of the BW river permit scheme is that although the pleasure boat certificate is valid on all BW river waterways, it is often impractical to cruise on more than one of them owing to their unconnected geographical locations. Boaters in the north-east have the greatest opportunity to obtain value-for-money, with a number of rivers being available to them; and many other linked broad beam waterways (a canal & river licence will be required even though many of them are canalised rivers – they are not classed as ‘river waterways’).

Before planning to venture on to unfamiliar waterways always check the maximum craft dimensions, particularly any headroom, beam and draft restrictions.

Boaters unfamiliar with self-operation of locks and bridges must ensure that they have a couple of windlasses (lock winding keys) to operate gate paddles and bridge mechanisms.

BW River Waterways

The list of BW rivers is given in their licence application forms and listed below:

  1. Avon (Hanham Lock to Bath)
  2. Bow Back Rivers
  3. Fossdyke & Witham (Torksey to Boston)
  4. Lee Navigation (Hertford to Limehouse)
  5. Limehouse Cut
  6. Ouse & Ure (Goole to Ripon)
  7. Severn (Stourport to Gloucester)
  8. Soar Navigation (Trent Junction to Leicester)
  9. Stort Navigation
  10. Tees (Tees Barrage to Low Worsal)
  11. Trent (Shardlow to Gainsborough including the Nottingham and Beeston Canal)
  12. Weaver Navigation (Winsford Bridge to Manchester Ship Canal)

Other waterways accessible to river users

As a concession to safety and for operational reasons, BW permits river craft to use parts of waterways that would otherwise require a full canal licence. These are listed below:

  • Stourport Basin (River Severn)
  • Diglis Basin (River Severn)
  • Gloucester Docks (River Severn – 14 day safe haven)
  • Stainforth & Keadby Canal, Aire and Calder Navigation and Selby Canal (A) (River Trent to River Ouse 72-hours passage only)
  • West Stockwith Lock (River Trent – 14 day safe haven)
  • Keadby Lock (River Trent – 14 day safe haven)
  • Hertford Union Canal and Grand Union Canal (B) (Regent’s Canal, Paddington Arm and Brentford Arm – to permit non-tidal passage from River Lee to upper Thames)
  • Limehouse Basin

River Avon (Bristol to Bath)

This river is accessible from seaward via Bristol Docks and is the closest BW river to the river Severn. A voyage from the non-tidal Severn to the Bristol Avon requires use of the entire length of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal (C) and entails a tidal passage from Sharpness to Avonmouth (see NABO Guidance Notes on Severn Pilotage). Refer to Admiralty charts 1166 and 1859.

Once through Bristol Docks (payment required) craft must traverse the Feeder Canal through Netham Lock on to the river Avon and head upstream towards Bath. There are 6 locks controlled by BW along this stretch of river. Only one lock (Hanham) is manned. This section of river is classed as part of the Kennet & Avon Canal and suitable sized craft can pass through to Reading and on to the river Thames.

Bow Back Rivers

This system of semi-tidal waterways gives access to the River Lee via Bow Tidal Locks. The adjacent section of the river Thames is covered by Admiralty chart 3337.

Bow Creek dries out to a trickle at low tide.

Fossdyke & Witham Navigation

The Fossdyke Canal links the tidal river Trent at Torksey with the city of Lincoln. It is joined at Lincoln by the River Witham which flows out to Boston. The river becomes tidal at Grand Sluice lock.

Access from the sea is via the Wash – refer to Admiralty chart 1200.

Lee Navigation (Hertford to Limehouse)

Bow Creek is tidal as far as Old Ford Locks where the Lee Navigation is linked to the Regents Canal via the Hertford Union Canal (also known as Duckett’s Cut). Limehouse Cut links Bow Creek to Limehouse Basin.

The river Lee Navigation extends for 27 miles as far as Hertford. It is joined at Hoddesdon by the River Stort. Beware of low bridge heights.

Limehouse Cut

This links the tidal Bow Creek with Limehouse Basin.

Ouse & Ure (Goole to Ripon)

The river Ouse in Yorkshire is tidal as far as Naburn Locks. It is the responsibility of Associated British Ports (ABP) between Trent Falls and Goole, at which point British Waterways becomes the navigation authority for the upstream navigation along the Ouse and connecting via the river Ure with the Ripon Canal.

The tidal section has connections with the river Trent, Aire and Calder Navigation main line via Ocean Lock at Goole (Associated British Ports), river Derwent at Barmby barrage and lock, the Selby Canal and the river Wharfe.

Naburn Locks are manned by BW and operate to suit tide times.

Severn (Stourport to Gloucester)

All locks along the river are manned and user operation is not possible. Locks maintain a marine band radio watch on Channel 74 and Channel 16. The few commercial vessels also use Channel 74.

Access to the open sea is only possible via the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. A canal and river licence is required.

Soar Navigation (Trent Junction to Leicester)

Beware of low bridge heights.

Stort Navigation

Beware of low bridge heights.

Tees (Tees Barrage to Low Worsal)

The Tees & Hartlepool Port Authority does not welcome pleasure craft passing through its area of operation downstream of the barrage and levies a registration charge – daily, monthly or annual tickets can be purchased.

Refer to Admiralty chart 2566.

The Tees Barrage lock and upper river are controlled by BW (they took over from the Teesside Development Corporation). A separate (higher) scale of charges applies to users of the river not holding a BW Pleasure Boat certificate.

Trent (Shardlow to Gainsborough including the Nottingham and Beeston Canal)

BW is the navigation authority between Shardlow and Gainsborough. The river is tidal below Cromwell Lock at Newark. Associated British Ports (ABP) is the authority for the river below Gainsborough.

The tidal section has connections with the Fossdyke Canal at Torksey Lock, the Chesterfield Canal at West Stockwith and the Stainforth and Keadby Canal at Keadby giving access to the Yorkshire waterways. The river joins the Ouse at Trent Falls and access to the sea is via the Humber estuary.

Large river boats and sea going boats are usually too high to pass beyond Trent Bridge. Smaller craft must lock out of the river at Meadow Lane Lock and enter the Nottingham Canal which joins with the Beeston Cut before re-joining the river upstream.

All river locks have traffic lights. Amber indicates self-operation when the roving lock keeper is not around. Cromwell Lock is manned and passage should be booked in advance to suit tide times.

Lock keepers use marine band radio Channel 74. Commercial vessels use Channel 74 on the non-tidal river, Channel 6 on the tidal section below Cromwell Lock and Channel 17 below Keadby bridge.

Beware of water skiing activity along the river at Hazleford, Farndon, Gunthorpe, Marnham and Laneham.

Refer to Admiralty chart 109.

Weaver Navigation (Winsford Bridge to Manchester Ship Canal)

The navigable river originally passed through Frodsham Lock but the old line of tidal river is no longer used. Instead, it has been by-passed by the existing navigation which passes under the M56 motorway and leads to Weston Marsh Lock (link to Manchester Ship Canal) and via the Weston Canal to Weston Point Docks (another link to the MSC). The Ship Canal is lower than the river Mersey on high spring tides and may be subject to rises in water level. Advance notice and permission is required from the MSC Company before pleasure craft can use the ship canal. Refer to Admiralty chart 3478.

Weaver lock and bridge keepers use marine band radio Channel 74.

Books and guides

Waterways Guides and Boaters Guides produced by BW area offices for each waterway. Available free of charge by telephone request:

  1. Yorkshire Waterways – A guide to the North Yorkshire navigations (0113 2816800)
  2. Yorkshire Waterways – A guide to the South Yorkshire navigations (0113 2816800)
  3. Yorkshire Waterways – A guide to the Aire & Calder navigations (0113 2816800)
  4. An introduction to the Chesterfield Canal (01636 705584)
  5. West Stockwith Lock – a guide for boaters (01636 705584)
  6. Wales & Border Counties waterways (01606 871471)
  7. Exploring the Weaver navigation (01606 871471)
  8. Waterways Guide – Chesterfield Canal, River Trent, Fossdyke & Witham navigations (01636 705584)
  9. Fossdyke & Witham improvements (01636 705584)
  10. The Leeds & Liverpool and Lancaster Canals leisure guide (0113 2816800)

London’s Waterway Guide by Chris Cove-Smith published by Imray (out of print)

The River Thames Book by Chris Cove-Smith 3rd edition 2002 published by Imray £9.95

The East Coast: A Pilot Guide from The Wash to Ramsgate by Derek Bowskill published by Imray (out of print)

East Coast pilot published by Imray £25.00

Cruising Association Almanac 2005-2006 Published by Imray £26.95 (includes Tide Tables)

Other guidance notes

NABO publishes a number of detailed sets of guidance and pilotage notes for waterways including the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, the tidal passage from Sharpness to Bristol, and the River Dee. These are obtainable via the NABO website TO MEMBERS ONLY.

Although the greatest care and diligence has been taken in the compilation of these pilotage notes the National Association of Boat Owners accepts no responsibility for any errors, omissions, or alterations in this publication, or for any consequences ensuing upon the use of, or reliance upon, any information given. It must be emphasised that these pilotage notes give only general advice and that the master of the vessel is at all times responsible for the safety of his craft and all aboard.

NABO welcomes any corrections or new information from users of these notes.

Copyright © NABO March 2006